The questions so many First Nations communities struggle with is “how do we get members out to attend our meetings and planning sessions? How can we get members interested so they will provide their input on issues? How do we get information out to the members in a way they will want to read what is sent out.”
Unfortunately, in many communities, members have had bad experiences with attending meetings. Either they do not feel listened to, do not want to listen to a bunch of negativity or feel like one or two people take all the air time and who wants to listen to them...again. At times, members don’t feel they are in a safe environment that they can voice their opinions and so do not say anything if they do attend. How often do we hear from people saying ‘I won’t go to meetings any more, it is a waste of my time.” How can we change these negative experiences into positive ones?
Further, there are some members who feel they are not provided with information from their community and know that without information they cannot make a good decision. It is surprising to me that there are some communities that do not get financial information on a regular basis, have no access to the audit, or no say in the budgeting process, or at least being informed of what money will be spent on. When members feel they do not get the information they need, they cannot develop a trust, or even a basic respect for the administration in the community. Members also need to know that when a direction is set, it cannot be changed with a change in Council, or a quick vote at a community meeting, and all the work that went into a plan or policy is down the drain. A process must be adopted by the members on how important Plans or decisions can be changed.
It is important to remember that as members of First Nations, we all collectively own the assets within our communities including the money that comes to our communities for certain purposes. This is not an individual interest and we are not entitled to a share of the money, but from the collective pot, we share in the services provided within our communities as well as the infrastructure which could include our community buildings, roads, water and homes. Because of this, sharing your voice with what happens to those assets is a must. It is not up to the Chief and Council, but up to the membership to direct the Chief and Council on how those assets are managed.
I attended and spoke at a Comprehensive Community Planning Workshop at Cowichan last week. The most important question that was asked was how do we involve all our members in planning for the short and long term? There were many good ideas that were shared by First Nations at the workshop.
A comprehensive community plan is intended to set out a plan for 5 to 25 years and can include planning on economic development, lands and resources, culture, social, governance, and infrastructure development. It lays out sustainability and environmental principles that all development is based on. It sets out a Vision, values and goals for the community. Such planning is critical to a community and all members need to be included whether you live on reserve or away from home.
Our communities need to set up meetings where there is a positive and constructive atmosphere and an opportunity to work together for the future and well being of our communities. Criticism is good as long as it comes with solutions to solve the problem being raised. What worked and didn't work and why and how do we fix it is a good discussion.
How you get information out to the community members is an important question that is handled differently in every community. Some use newsletters, mail outs, e mails, password protected websites, meetings, house visits and surveys. Some offer meals and door prizes as an incentive to get people to attend meetings. But are these methods working and are there others?
Setting out simple guide lines on how meetings are to be conducted is also helpful. Some First Nations use an independent Chair, or use their Consultants for the Comprehensive Community Plan to conduct the meetings.
When you are doing something as important as a Community Plan, making it fun is also an option. Laying out large sheets of papers, felt pens, adults and children can sketch out in words or drawings what they want to see for their communities. Having a contest for the kids to draw out a sketch of their community in the future and using the winning sketch for the cover of the plan is another rewarding way of involving our young people. For other success stories and models of community engagement, on this web page, click on Tools and Resources and type Community Development in the Search bar and various articles and papers will come up. For First Nations experiences with Comprehensive Community Planning, you can go to www.inac-ainc.gc.ca/bc/ccp Challenges for getting information and getting people involved at the community level will be based on what you find works for your community and taking some of the ideas of other communities and changing it for your own.
The bigger information challenge is letting our members know what is going on with our Provincial organizations, the First Nations Summit, The Union of BC Indian Chiefs, and the BC Assembly of First Nations. Or at the Federal level with the Assembly of First Nations. While each organization has their websites, it is not enough. Information often goes to First Nations offices and remains there and members are not kept up to date on critical issues such as the changes to the Indian Act on membership that will be made based on the McIvor Case, or what efforts are being made in the fishery or the political challenges to big resource projects like Enbridge or Prosperity Mines or social justice issues like inquiries in the Pickton case or Frank Paul. We need to find better ways to let our members know what is going on at the provincial and federal levels. Efforts after all are being made on behalf of all our members, regardless of where they live. We must always remember that not all First Nations have internet in their communities, and some of our members do not have computers, so relying solely on the web is not the entire answer.
The power is in the people, and the more informed and involved our people are, the stronger we are as Nations! Letting First Nations members feel frustrated and on the outside will not strengthen the unity we need in the community, provincially and federally. There are too many important issues facing our people today and we need to find the best ways of informing them and getting them involved. If any communities have a successful process for community engagement they would like to share, it can be posted on this web portal!